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'Friends have been made:' Fort Vermilion offers First Nations community a home close to home during fire evacuation

A helicopter flys tree-top level ahead of wildfire crews doing controlled burn ignition operation approximately three kilometres southwest of High Level where about 5,000 residence were evacuated from the Chuckegg Creek fire, May 23, 2019. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia
A helicopter flys tree-top level ahead of wildfire crews doing controlled burn ignition operation approximately three kilometres southwest of High Level where about 5,000 residence were evacuated from the Chuckegg Creek fire, May 23, 2019. Ed Kaiser/Postmedia

FORT VERMILION, Alta. — As the northern Alberta Chuckegg Creek wildfire continues to burn out of control forcing the evacuation of High Level and surrounding area, the neighbouring community of Fort Vermilion has become respite for evacuees not able to travel farther south.

Fort Vermilion — a hamlet with a population just over 700 located about 100 kilometres east of High Level and 864 kilometres north of Edmonton — first welcomed evacuees on Monday but faced difficulties with power and supplies.

When evacuation orders then came on Tuesday for communities of the nearby Dene Tha’ First Nation, the hamlet swung open the doors of the local recreation centre to allow those evacuees to stay closer to home.

“For some elders this is the longest they’ve ever been away from Chateh,” said Lacey Lizotte, a volunteer at the reception centre, who Friday morning had just finished a near 24-hour shift.

Lizotte, a teacher and missionary, said helping others is nothing new to her or her community. She’s been helping to make sure evacuees have food, a place to sleep and medication.

“Volunteers and evacuees are getting through this with humour and lightheartedness and it’s been beautiful to witness,” said Lizotte.

“It seems like friends have been made here between locals and displaced members.”

To keep morale high, the community has organized musical acts in the afternoons and evenings to keep evacuees entertained.

“The resilience is incredible,” said Lizotte, whose brother Lance has also been pitching in to help out.

Anyone who can is offering up space for evacuees, he said.

“A lot of houses you’ll see like 10 vehicles there,” said Lance Lizotte. “The closer ties, a lot of family, a lot of friends.”

Locals are also donating what they can to help out. The reception centre issued a request for baby supplies and toiletries on Tuesday night and a call for boys and men’s clothing, hairbrushes and Q-tips Friday morning.

Fire crews, meanwhile, are keeping the out-of-control Chuckegg Creek fire from encroaching further on High Level, where the blaze has grown to over 97,000 hectares. High Level Mayor Crystal McAteer on Thursday said the nearly 5,000 evacuees need financial help in the face of the ongoing “very real” danger.

dshort@postmedia.com

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019


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